Nicaroa survivors being landed at Norfolk Virginia, having been rescued off the Bahamas. Purser Frank C. Bunn, Junior is to the left of center in sun glasses, doggedly carrying the ship’s papers.
Photo Source: NARA – National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC
The fruit-carrying steam ship Nicarao was built at Shooter’s Island, New York by the Standard Shipbuilding Corporation and launched in 1920. She used to be flagged to Nicaragua, and indeed her name derives from the indigenous name for that country’s largest pre-Columbian city. The Spanish explorer Gil Gonzalez Davila named Nicaragua by combining Nicarao with the Spanish word for water, agua, to form Nicaragua (Wikipedia.org).
The dimensions of Nicarao were 71.4 meters by 10.4 meters by 6.2 meters draft. She was armed with one 4-inch gun and two .30-calibre machine guns and propelled by a 200 horsepower engines capable of 11 knots speed. Though built in 1920, the ship is not listed in Roger Jordan’s seminal compendium, “Merchant Fleets, 1939”. This is because the ship was laid up in New Orleans in 1936 and brought back into service for World War II.
The Ship’s List shows that the ship was first owned and operated by the Cuyamel Fruit Co, a firm founded in 1904 and trading mostly to Honduras, Nicaragua and Mexico, from 1920 to 1929. That year Cuyamel Fruit Co. merged with the United Fruit Company, a banana carrier which had been growing exponentially. It moved from the US to the Honduras flag briefly in 1935 US flag then back to the US flag in 1936, at which point it was laid up (theshipslist.com/ships/lines/ufruit.htm).
On its final voyage the Nicarao was en route from Kingston Jamaica to Jacksonville, Florida, via the Windward Passage. The cargo was 21,700 stems of bananas, 1,400 bags of coconuts and a balance cargo of charcoal. The aggregate weight of the cargo is estimated at 500 tons. It is not known whether the Captain intended to utilize the Northeast and Northwest Providence channels or go around the north ends of Abaco and Grand Bahama, because the ship never made it that far. She was struck 95 nautical miles east of Palmetto Point, in 4,875 meters of water. This position is also north of San Salvador, and east of Rock Sound, Eleuthera and northeast of Cat Island.
There are three aspects of the loss of Nicarao which stand out – it was the only ship sunk squarely in proximity to Eleuthera, and no other island, the crew were rescued by a ship which would itself be sunk within a few months, and they were landed not in the Bahamas but in Virginia, where their arrival was well documented and photographs. Because their ordeal in the water only lasted a few hours, the officers and crew actually cut quite dashing figures as they boarded a bus, clutching the ship’s papers.
Another unusual aspect of the sinking, or at least that emerges from the reports following the casualty, is the apparently deeply held conviction by the crew that they were attacked or at least tracked by sailing schooners, something which may seem ridiculous given that many schooners were sunk by U-boats and given their comparatively benign speed and lack of radios or motors, however at the time this idea had clearly taken hold.
The Nicarao met its fate at the hands of Gerhard Bigalk, a U-boat skipper who had flown many sorties for the fascists in the Spanish Civil War. U-751 encountered Nicarao on its way inbound to the Caribbean. The weather was described as overcast and rough, with the Trade Wind blowing at about 15 knots from the east-northeast. With no moon on the night of 15th May 1942 there was only one mile or so visibility. The ship was steering 001 degrees, or a degree east of due north, with three men on watch: two on the bridge forward of admidships, and a Navy gunner on the transom, way aft on the ship. The attack was to come from the seaward, or eastern side.
U-751 dispatched the ship with one torpedo at 9:15 at night ship’s time (4:15 am on the following day German time). The Master, Cecil Desmond, was able to watch the track of the offending torpedo some 20 feet from his ship, approaching at some fifty miles an hour and at an angle of 40 degrees from the ship. It was of course too late for him to take any defensive action. The Nicarao was steaming at ten knots, so the torpedo was going roughly five times the speed of the ship.
The explosion occurred forward of the second porthole on the starboard side, and most of the impact thrust upwards, according to the crew rupturing deck plates and ripping a hole in the starboard side of the ship. The crew smelled a pungent acidic odor, probably from the exploding mechanism in the torpedo, which burned their mouths, noses, throats and stomachs. Since the Radio Operator, Louis Taix, was killed in the attack, it is not known whether he managed to get off an SSS or SOS report, and the log of the Eastern Sea Frontier is silent on this point, suggesting that he did not.
The ship was abandoned at 9:17 pm and sank one minute later: time from impact to sinking was a mere three minutes. During this time it is impressive that 31 out of a full complement of 39 officers and crew managed to escape the doomed ship. There was obviously no time for the Navy Gunners to return fire to the submarine, which was not seen at any event. There was barely enough time for the men to launch two lifeboats and four rafts before the ship went under. As it was, both of the lifeboats swamped and were of no use to the survivors until they managed to right them the following morning.
The Chief Engineer, Lawrence Ouder was unable to get off the ship in time. Aside from the Able Bodied Seaman Ralph Hawkins, all the other five lost were from the galley department, and included a Messman, two Messboys (probably, to use the language of the day, “colored”), the Chief Cook and 2nd Cook. The only survivor of the galley crew, Messman Johnie James Calvin, Jr. is described as “colored” in the Survivor Statements. It can only be assumed that the torpedo struck near the galley or the quarters for the galley staff for they, more than any other department, suffered the highest number of casualties.
All four members of the US Navy gun crew – Joe Zurrunsky, Chief Gunner, Howie Collom, Jack Campbell, and Ken Connelly, survived. Since they were interviewed individually by the Navy (being of the Navy), the record of their individual experience survives. Jack Campbell was the one manning the gun aft, and he was knocked off his feet by the explosion. He called for the other gunners, but before they could join him the Purser, Frank C. Bunn, Jr. jumped in to assist, though he had no formal training in gunnery.
Together they pulled the top of the gun barrel up to train it and placed a shell into the weapon, no doubt with difficulty as the ship was already tilting perilously. The ship had sunk to such a degree that the men could no longer even stand in the platform, and they had to abandon the effort. Bunn leapt off the stern, still carrying some of the ship’s papers in a brown leather satchel, and Campbell followed by climbing down a ladder, where he helped other men to release a raft. Then he too jumped clear of the rapidly sinking Nicarao and swam to a raft.
Joe Zurrunsky was the Gunner’s Mate in charge of the four-man Naval Armed Guard detachment. Shaken from his bunk by the explosion, he rallied the men to get their life jackets and join him topside. Finding the bag with the ship’s confidential papers, he hurled it over the side. Since they couldn’t see any submarine and the ship was sinking fast, he jumped over the side with some of the other gunners and swam for a raft. Howie Collom, an Apprentice Seaman in the US Navy, was asleep when the ship was struck. He ran after to the gun, but could not even make it to the gun platform, as the ship was down by the head so much that it would have been a slippery uphill struggle. He also jumped clear and swam for a raft.
Ken Connelly, another Apprentice Seaman in the Navy gave his statement freely to the agents in Norfolk, J. W. Winston. He was awake in his bunk when he felt the torpedo slam into the ship. He went down to the ladder and looked at the gun platform, but found it to be empty. Then he went up to the boat deck and assisted lowering the port life boat (on the opposite side from which the torpedo struck). They managed to launch the boat, but the ship had over ten knots speed when struck and the lifeboat swamped immediately. He managed later to get the life boat to one of the rafts, and as noted the crew were able to raise the boat the following morning.
Most of the men survived by jumping into the water and swimming for the rafts. They were fortunate in that the water in the Bahamas is generally quite warm – as high as in the seventy-degree-fahrenheit in the summer, probably less in May. While escaping from the stricken ship several survivors reported seeing flares “in the vicinity of the ship just after the attack”. More specifically they saw two flares roughly at roughly 30 feet altitude aft of the ship followed by two more off to the ship’s port and roughly five feet in the air.
It is the author’s opinion that this was either the submarine trying to illuminate the ship to determine its name (they never did approach the survivors for information on the ship) – first using a flare and then a search light of some sort.
The other possibility is more haunting. Is it possible that some of the eight men lost actually survived the attack but were left behind on board or clinging to wreckage right afterwards? If so one of them may have climbed to the highest point on the ship to signal to his comrades to come back and get them (say, from 30 feet elevation, or the height of the bridge), and then afterwards stood on some floating raft or boat and signaled with a hand flare from five feet above sea level…. We will of course never know….
The following day they were able to turn both lifeboats upright and bail them out. Less than 24 hours later, at 6:18 pm in the evening, they were spotted and picked up by the officers and men of the Esso Augusta under Captain Eric Robert Blomquist.
The Augusta took them to their next port of call, Norfolk, Virginia, where they were landed three days later, on the 20th of May, 1942. There representatives of the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) were waiting for them and Ensign A. J. Powers, US Naval Reserve, completed his report on the incident on the 8th of June, roughly two weeks later.
The following week, on the 15th of June 1942, the Esso Augusta itself fell victim to mines strewn off the entrance to Chesapeake Bay by U-701 under Horst Degen (whose sub was captured, with Degen being imprisoned for the balance of the war in the US). The Augusta was towed to Norfolk by the tugs Keshena and Coyote, repaired, and returned to service on the 7th of November the same year. There were no casualties.
One of the most interesting aspects of the post-mortem of this casualty is the suspicion, aired by the second most senior officer on board, that sailing schooners may be responsible for sinking merchant ships in the area during the war. As preposterous as this may seem now, knowing that few schooners had motors or radio, much less the capability to fire torpedoes accurately, and that in any event they were almost always slower than merchant ships, and certainly significantly slower than submarines, the idea apparently held sway with the seamen and was repeated by their interrogators:
The First Mate of the Nicarao, Henry J, Szollosky, gave the following statement: “On May 15th, the day of the attack, having just passed San Salvador Island, we sighted a Gloucester Schooner on the starboard side [east] of the vessel. She was white, two-masted, with main sail, 3 jibs and a small spanker sail. The spanker sail was unusually small for that type of vessel. The vessel was between 90′ and 110′ long, about 100 tons, speed about nine knots and I believe it had a motor due to the speed she was making.”
Szollosky went on to describe in similar detail how a schooner had been sighted by the Nicarao crew east of the Cayman Islands on May 6th. He believed that this schooner was responsible at least in part for the sinking of the Empire Buffalo, which was sunk that day by U-125 under Kapitänleutnant Ulrich Folkers. The survivors were landed in Kingston while the Nicarao loaded in that port and they apparently spoke with each other. Szollosky ended his conspirational statement with the open-ended remark that “It is generally known that schooners have been sighted on numerous occasions in this locality where sinkings have occurred.”